Thousands of homeowners in central Florida are facing a stucco disaster.
Cracking stucco, water entry and the resulting rotting of wood frame structures has become a nightmare for homeowners and home builders. One national builder has set aside more than $40 million to repair improperly installed stucco. In most cases, the structural damage is concealed and can’t be discovered without destructive inspection.
During the 2005-2010 construction boom, shoddy workmanship and lack of supervision, combined with lax or no inspections resulted in a perfect storm of stucco disasters. Here’s a link to a recent news story about the problem:http://www.wtsp.com/story/news/investigations/2015/06/24/floridas-billion-dollar-stucco-problem/29073195/.
Stucco takes time. It’s very time consuming to properly install the backing and accessories. Production builders live by the “cheaper is better” model. Anything that takes time tends to go by the wayside in the world of production building, where a two-story home is built in 30 days.
In the past year, I’ve conducted more than 100 destructive inspections of improperly installed stucco on homes in central Florida for homeowners who are making construction defect claims. I’ve learned every possible way you can imagine that you can improperly install stucco, and some ways that you or I couldn’t imagine.
As home inspectors, we face a dilemma. Most of these defects can’t be discovered or proven until you break things apart. Many of them, however, can be seen without performing destructive inspection. As consumers become aware of these issues with stucco, their expectations increase regarding what they want a home inspector to tell them about stucco.
In the first part of this two-part article, I’ll share some of the points you can observe in the course of a visual home inspection that will help you and your clients avoid an expensive problem. Fixing these problems isn’t cheap. Removal and replacement costs can range upwards of $50,000. Part 1 covers issues involving lack of drainage, no drainage at horizontal returns and stucco that’s too thin. Part 2 will cover improperly installed paper-backed lath, improperly installed control joints and lack of casing beads and caulked joints—watch for the second installment in the June issue of the Reporter.
Lack of Drainage (photos – #1-4)
All vertical panels of stucco have to drain water at the bottom. In central Florida, the typical production home is concrete block on the first floor and wood frame on the second floor. You need to see a weep screed at the bottom of all wood frame walls above a masonry wall or foundation. This has long been required in the ASTM standards that are referenced in the model building codes. In 2005, the Florida Building Code added a specific requirement for drainage at this point. I’ve seen many homes without this drainage or with it improperly installed.
Reference: ASTM C-1063: 7.11.5
Foundation Weep Screed—Foundation weep screed shall be installed at the bottom of all steel or wood framed exterior walls to receive lath and plaster.
Photo 1: No drainage at bottom of second story wood frame walls above first floor masonry walls.
Photo 2: No weep screed at bottom of first floor wood frame wall. Casing beads do not drain water.
Photo 3: No weep screed at bottom of second story wood frame wall. Casing beads do not drain water.
Photo 4: Water stain at the top of a garage wall below a wood frame wall. Stains like this indicate concealed damage to the wood frame wall above the masonry wall.
No Drainage at Horizontal Returns
Where vertical stucco surfaces meet horizontal surfaces, drainage is required. All wood frame walls must drain water at the bottom. This is easy for home inspectors to see.
Drainage is specifically required here by the ASTM standards referenced in the building code. Any water that enters here is trapped as it can’t drain out at the bottom of the vertical panel. When water entry occurs, the wood structure is damaged.
Reference: ASTM C-926: A2.2.3
Where vertical and horizontal exterior plaster surfaces meet, both surfaces shall be terminated with casing beads with the vertical surface extending at least 1⁄4 in. (6 mm) below the intersecting horizontal plastered surface, thus providing a drip edge. The casing bead for the horizontal surface shall be terminated not less than 1⁄4 in. from the back of the vertical surface to provide drainage.
Photo 5: No drainage at horizontal return below vertical stucco walls.
Photo 6: Here’s what the home inspector can see looking up at the underside of the horizontal surface. Note the small crack and faint stains bleeding out.
Photo 7: Here’s what the structure looked like after the stucco was removed. If you can see stains bleeding out, it’s very likely there’s heavy damage.
Photo 8: If you see this on the underside of a horizontal return, you can be certain there’s heavy damage.
Photo 9: It probably looks like this.
Stucco That’s Too Thin (photos 10-12)
ASTM standards require that stucco on wood backing be 7/8-inch thick, exclusive of texture. Stucco that’s too thin isn’t as strong and is more likely to crack. Cracks admit water. The wire lath rusts and expands, allowing more water entry and causing more cracking. Often these cracks on a second story wall are too small to see from the ground. You can get an idea of the thickness by looking at the dimensions of casing beads or weep screeds at the bottom of walls above roofs, or by inserting a thin ruler above the top of the stucco at the soffit level.
Photo 10: Measuring thickness at top of wall. Thickness here is about 5/8 inch.
Photo 11: A 3⁄4-inch casing bead. The stucco cannot be 7/8 inch thick.
Photo 12: Stucco gets noticeably thinner away from accessories such as weep screeds and control joints.
Conclusion (photo 13)
Florida’s stucco problem is real. It’s big, and it’s getting bigger. Don’t let yourself be caught on the wrong side of a lawsuit because you failed to point out potential problems and explain the implications of the problem. Always make your client aware of the potential for significant concealed damage. Recommend destructive inspection. You won’t be very popular with agents, but you’ll sleep better at night. I’ve had to defend a home inspector in a concealed damage claim over stucco. It’s not pretty.
Photo 13: Destructive inspection can include drilling holes and measuring moisture with a meter, or simply breaking open the stucco to see what was done wrong underneath the surface. Both have their places.
Also understand that it’s useless to recommend “further evaluation by a stucco contractor.” These are the folks who created this mess. They’re likely to say it’s all just fine and you need a little patching. That’s just kicking the can down the road.
For those of you in other parts of the country, the issues are the same, not only with stucco, but with artificial stone veneer, which is essentially nothing more than lumpy stucco. Similar disasters are widespread almost everywhere.
Mark Cramer is home inspection veteran and a Florida-licensed contractor who has 25 years of experience performing home inspections, construction progress inspections, commercial building inspections and insurance inspections. Mark also works as a litigation consultant and expert witness in matters relating to construction defects and home inspection. He’s performed more than 100 forensic inspections of stucco failures. Mark has more than 5,000 hours of experience training home inspectors in classroom and seminar settings. A longtime ASHI member, Mark was one of the founding members of the Suncoast Chapter of ASHI. He’s held numerous local and national positions within ASHI, serving as chair of several national committees and as National President of ASHI in the year 2000.